When Newt Gingrich was elected Speaker of the House in December,
one of his first acts was to call Penn State coach Joe Paterno
for advice on how to gracefully replace the old guard on the
Hill with fresher blood. Gingrich was seeking Paterno's counsel
because of the way the coach deftly rotates in his underclassmen
each year, but he could also have been asking because of the
masterful way Penn State (page 76) has supplanted the old bully
on the Big Ten block, Michigan (page 93).
Before the Nittany Lions entered the conference, in 1993, the
Wolverines had won or shared the Big Ten title for five
consecutive years. While Michigan has hardly disappeared, Penn
State's presence has made the entire conference better: Last
season the Big Ten had a record nine 1,000-yard rushers, its
27-11-1 nonconference mark was its best in nine years, and its
4-1 bowl record set a new standard. "With Penn State, the Big
Ten is now one of the toughest conferences," says Wolverine
junior linebacker Rob Swett. "The prestige of the Big Ten
carries more weight."
But don't expect Penn State and Michigan to completely dominate
the conference race this season. Ohio State (page 111) and
Illinois (page 114) both have the talent to make a run for the
roses, and several long shots could emerge from the pack.
Wisconsin head coach Barry Alvarez feels as if he has an
assistant coach out on the field in senior quarterback Darrell
Bevell. "If you stand behind the huddle in practice, you see his
control of the team," Alvarez says. "You see 10 other players
with an awful lot of confidence in him."
Maybe they're just respecting their elder. Bevell, 25, went on a
two-year Mormon mission to Cleveland after transferring to
Madison from Northern Arizona as a freshman. He already owns 16
school passing records.
The Badgers' rebuilt offensive line must protect Bevell long
enough for him to get the ball downfield--way downfield--to
sophomore wideout Tony Simmons. Last year Simmons averaged 26.7
yards per catch, and eight of his 22 receptions went for scores.
But if Alvarez can't adequately replace the entire defensive
backfield as well as the school's alltime sack leader, Mike
Thompson, the Badger defense will be allowing as many long balls
as the offense generates.
Meanwhile, Purdue, the Big Ten's cradle of quarterbacks, is
grounding its aerial attack in favor of its senior backfield.
Fullback Mike Alstott and tailback Corey Rogers may make the
fans in Lafayette, Ind., momentarily forget Jim Everett, Bob
Griese, Len Dawson, et al.--especially if they lead the
Boilermakers to their first bowl since the Peach in 1984.
Alstott lived a fullback's dream last season, carrying the ball
202 times and amassing 1,188 yards. Rogers gained 764 yards
behind Alstott's blocks. The Purdue offense, with eight starters
returning, will be wise to keep the ball on the ground and its
own defense--to which eight starters return--off the field. Purdue
ranked 105th out of 107 teams in total defense last year, giving
up 471 yards and 31.5 points per game. And that was without Penn
State on the schedule.
Expect improvement, not miracles, from a Michigan State defense
that has finished eighth in the Big Ten for four straight years.
Progress for the Spartans will be the design of coach Nick
Saban, a former Spartan and Cleveland Brown defensive
coordinator. Saban, whose 1994 Browns led the NFL with 12.8
points allowed per game, returns to East Lansing after seven
years in the pros. Senior cornerback Demetrice Martin, who had
seven interceptions last season, should benefit from the
hopped-up pass rush in Saban's 4-3 scheme.
Offensively, the Spartans' skill players will have to keep foes
guessing because the O-line will have trouble holding its own up
front. Senior quarterback Tony Banks is the Big Ten's leading
returning passer and has a couple of deep threats in junior
receivers Nigea Carter and Derrick Mason. Fullback Scott Greene,
who averaged 5.5 yards per carry, should get the ball more often
as the Spartans try to mix up the attack.
Last year Iowa coach Hayden Fry let it fly with nine different
Hawkeyes attempting passes. The best of the bunch was freshman
quarterback Matt Sherman, who connected on 42 of 59 attempts for
736 yards. Out most of the year with a broken foot, Sherman
started the last two games and directed the Hawkeyes to wins
over Northwestern (49-13) and Minnesota (49-42). With a healthy
Sherman and running backs Sedrick Shaw, a junior, and Tavian
Banks, a sophomore, Iowa will have no trouble putting points on
Indiana tailback Alex Smith (following page) took the Big Ten by
surprise last season, rushing for 1,475 yards. With defenses
stacked against him, Smith may find the holes scarcer this year.
That means the Hoosiers will have to improve their passing game,
the Big Ten's worst in 1994. With a suspect defense as well,
junior quarterback Chris Dittoe must step up or Indiana may find
itself with a ditto of its '94 record: 6-5.
If Minnesota senior tailback Chris Darkins thought he saw the
ball a lot last year, he ain't seen nothing yet. The 6'1",
215-pound Darkins, who gained 1,443 yards last season, had his
number called a conference-leading 277 times even though the
Golden Gophers had the Big Ten's third-best passing game. This
fall, with two unproven quarterbacks in Cory Sauter and Jason
Murdock, Darkins could get a Salaam-ian 300 carries. Too bad the
Heisman almost never goes to a player on a losing team.
Did someone say losing team?
Northwestern hasn't had a winning season since 1971, and with
nearly 70% of last year's rushing and receiving yards graduated,
the Wildcats are lucky their best player is all-conference
punter Paul Burton. Did someone say MAC?
COLOR PHOTO: TIM DEFRISCO Bevell's the boss for the Badgers. [Darrell Bevell in game]
COLOR PHOTO: TODD ROSENBERG Minnesota will have to rely on its ground game more than ever, meaning Darkins (44) will be the go-to Gopher. [Chris Darkins in game]
1. Penn State
3. Ohio State
7. Michigan State